Which Players Could Be Best Bargains on the Market?
Big names rule NFL free agency. Whether it's huge contract extensions, franchise tags or massive deals with new teams, money flows toward those who shine the brightest.
There are plenty of quality players who make huge impacts on smaller deals, though, and 2016 will be no different. Let's take a look at some players who could be some of the biggest steals when free agency opens March 9 by virtue of position played, checkered history, a lack of playing time or just plain sneaky upside.
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins got in the habit of shooting themselves in the foot last season. Case in point: the puzzling usage of Lamar Miller.
The speedy running back has steadily improved in his four-year NFL tenure, and he showed out when he got the ball last season. But despite averaging 4.5 yards per carry behind an awful offensive line and scoring eight touchdowns, Miller only ran the ball 194 times.
It seemed as though the Dolphins were trying to keep him fresh at points, but they inexplicably abandoned the run after having early success in several contests.
Sparing Miller may have fattened his wallet, however, at least if teams value fresh legs in free agency. Averaging 4.8 yards per carry and amassing 672 receiving yards over his last two seasons probably helps a bit, too.
Nick Fairley, DT, Los Angeles Rams
How do we refer to Rams players in the past tense? Nick Fairley was with the St. Louis Rams last season, but the team is now in Los Angeles.
Pondering the metaphysical aside, what will Fairley's free agency look like in 2016? If it's anything like it was a year ago, someone is getting a great deal.
For some inexplicable reason, Fairley's phone was silent last offseason. Sure, he had his share of on- and off-field issues, but they paled in comparison to what we've seen from other players, some of whom saw big contracts regardless.
The 6'4", 308-pound lineman had established himself as one of the better defensive tackles in the league, but his own team, the Detroit Lions, didn't want him, and the Rams only signed him to a one-year deal.
He played fairly well, rating 11th best at his position at Pro Football Focus and generally being a pain against the run and pass for opposing offenses. He kept his nose clean, too, which should help him net a multiyear deal.
Still, after last year's puzzling turn of events, Fairley is probably going to be a steal of a deal come March.
Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals have some decisions to make in the secondary. Do they re-sign Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson, which would give them three viable starters at safety? If not, whom do they keep?
Johnson is more seasoned at 30 years of age, but is he a better player than Jefferson? He has had some decent seasons—including 2015—but Jefferson seems like the bargain at 24 years old.
To wit, the duo rated 42nd (Jefferson) and 44th (Johnson) in the league among safeties last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Those aren't particularly good numbers, but that was smack dab in the middle of the pack.
At least Jefferson has plenty of time to improve. Johnson's clock is ticking.
Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Cleveland Browns
Good offensive tackles are going up in price, but left tackles hog all the cash. Having a quality right tackle could come in handy, though—just ask the Carolina Panthers.
Mitchell Schwartz isn't exactly a household name. In fact he was oft-maligned in Cleveland, even as recent as a year ago. While he hasn't been a brick wall, Schwartz has been a solid member of the Browns offensive line.
That was especially true last season, when he rated among the best offensive tackles—left side or right—in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Of course, his agent should lead all free-agent conversations with the fact that he allowed just one quarterback hurry to Super Bowl MVP Von Miller—who actually had his worst pass rush grade of the year against Schwartz—in 2015.
Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants
How good is Rueben Randle? That is still to be determined after four years of NFL football.
The 6'2", 208-pound receiver out of LSU has had his moments with the New York Giants, but he has been outshined by fellow Giants receivers.
The latest, of course, has been former college teammate Odell Beckham Jr., who has taken the league by storm. Before then, Victor Cruz stole the show.
Randle hasn't made the most of his role as the No. 2 wideout for Eli Manning, but a change of scenery might let him spread his wings and fly.
Of course, that would require a move from New York, something he has said he would rather not do, according to Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post: "I love playing on this team and love playing with the guys on this team. I’ve built a special bond with a lot of people in this organization, so it would be tough leaving them. I would love to stick around, but we’ll see how it goes."
Of course, that was before head coach Tom Coughlin was forced out.
Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers
Slot cornerbacks might not get the glory their counterparts on the outside do, but they are valuable pieces of defenses everywhere.
Well, at least if they are actually good.
That much is true of Casey Hayward, who has been one of the most reliable cornerbacks in the league since the Packers drafted him in 2012. He has allowed just five touchdowns in four seasons—though three slipped by him in 2015—and has rated among the best of his peers at times in that span.
That said, he isn't a shutdown No. 1 in the mold of Richard Sherman or Josh Norman. Playing the slot has its financial disadvantages, so a huge contract isn't looming for Hayward. A bargain is coming for whoever signs him, though.
Damon Harrison, DT, New York Jets
Many experts expected the New York Jets defense to improve dramatically last season after an offseason overhaul. That proved true, for the most part.
The defensive line needed little help, though—it was already good. The secondary was another matter, but we are here to talk about defensive tackle Damon Harrison.
The talented defensive tackle has quietly rated among the best in the league over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. He was a big reason why the Jets had the top run-stuffing defensive line in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
But defensive tackles not named Ndamukong Suh or Marcell Dareus don't tend to rake in the big bucks in the NFL. Given Harrison isn't exactly a household name, his contract might not crack the top 10 at his position.
Russell Okung, OT, Seattle Seahawks
We are about to find out what an agent is worth to an NFL player.
Left tackle Russell Okung has decided to go at it alone, eschewing traditional player representation. While it'll save him a little money by way of not having to pay commission, could it cost him a bigger contract?
Negotiating his own deal aside, Okung could wind up being a relative bargain for a left tackle because of his injury history.
Okung has yet to play a full season in the NFL, missing at least one regular-season game each season of his six-year career. He has played in 72 of 96 possible games, missing a full 25 percent, though six of those came in his rookie year in 2010.
Still, Okung has a ton of upside if he can stay healthy. He hasn't reached his first-round potential, but the 6'5", 310-pound offensive lineman has been a quality starter when healthy.
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